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"You know what's coming," former Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney once said, "but you know what's coming in horror movies too. It still gets you."
Every Rivera pitch unspools the same way: with a flat wrist, his hand behind the ball and his fingers on top of it. Rivera has pitched so well over so many years without turning his wrist to impart spin. "Since I came to the big leagues? No, never," he says of turning his wrist, something pitchers must do for sliders, breaking balls and changeups. "I never want to do that. That's when I get around the ball [by mistake]. I correct it right away."
And this too remains constant: the demeanor. The son of a Panamanian fisherman, the father of three, Rivera has the countenance of a benevolent king; baseball royalty without the arrogance. Clean-shaven, soft-spoken, unhurried, understated and humble, he is an organic closer, free of the add-ons and posing and histrionics that so many others have needed or manufactured to deal with the stress of the job. "And he's even so darn handsome, with those teeth and that smile," says Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. "Really, we all look up to him, and the way he keeps going, he's making it hard on me to break his records. I have tremendous respect for what he has done for this long, especially because doing it under the daily pressure in New York or Boston is like nothing else in baseball."
"I have respect for Mariano like I have for my father," says Boston designated hitter David Ortiz. "Why? He's just different. If you talk to him at an All-Star Game, it's like talking to somebody who just got called up. To him, everybody else is good. I don't get it. To him everybody else is the best. It's unbelievable. And he is the greatest.
"You know what? Sometimes in those times when he struggles, like when I watch him on TV, I feel bad for him. I seriously do. Good people, you want to do well."
Told of this respect from his peers, especially from within the enemy clubhouse in Boston, Rivera is grateful, if slightly uncomfortable. "I don't wait for people to give me respect," Rivera says. "I always give them respect. Any player. Even a rookie, an old player, a veteran. I never try to show up anybody. I go to my business. I always take time for somebody who wants to talk to me. That's my thing.
"It comes from back home. Family. My father was strict and always taught me no matter who it is, everybody is an uncle. To me, everybody was someone I respect like family. I grew up with that."
One day this summer Chad Gaudin, a Yankees pitcher working for his sixth organization, took a seat next to Rivera in the bullpen. The scene wasn't too different from one of those New Yorker cartoon drawings in which a man, having climbed some great peak, asks a serene guru a metaphysical question. How, at a time when most pitchers fail, are you able to continually succeed in clutch situations?
Rivera's answer: The secret is not so much confidence as focus. "Nothing derails him," Gaudin says. "No emotions get in the way. Ever. He is able to take all that energy of the moment and channel it into everything he has to do. Why doesn't everybody do that? Not everybody has the power or self-discipline."
Says Borzello, "He never speeds up his routine. If the [bullpen] phone rings, he goes through his routine at a very relaxed pace. There is no panic. In bullpens you see a lot of guys sprint to the mound, start firing pitches immediately, they can't breathe.... Mo, from Day One was never like that. His thinking always was, I'll control it."